Rutherford County may be walking a fine line between First Amendment rights and its proposed social media policy, according to local officials.
A resolution to adopt a social media policy for Rutherford County employees sparked an in-depth discussion Thursday among commissioners during a Rutherford County Commission meeting.
The policy is intended to make sure Rutherford County is being represented in a positive light on its various websites, said Sonya Stephenson, director of Human Resources.
“Our efforts were that we wanted to make sure that anyone who was representing Rutherford County government did so in a professional and responsible manner if they were going to be working in their official capacity,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson defined “official capacity” as someone who is responsible for operating social media for a county website.
“If in that person’s role or job description, it is defined that they are the one responsible for doing the social media for that department, then they are acting in their official capacity,” she said.
While that may be one definition, it is not the only one. Muddy language in the policy reveals there could be other conduct online that could be subject to reprimand or termination.
“We’ve tried to define it in a way that not everybody could be creating a website and only those people who were authorized to do so would be doing that to represent the county,” Stephenson said. “Your personal webpage or personal Facebook is just that, it’s personal. But if it’s an official website of Rutherford County government that’s where we want people to do so in a way that is professional.”
But an employee’s personal website or personal Facebook account would not be personal according to the language.
Commissioner Jeff Jordan (Dist.13) read from the policy, which said the county uses search tools and software to monitor forums such as blogs, diaries and social media sites.
“It doesn’t say whether a person is at work,” Jordan said.
The policy, which was explained as being put forth out of concerns about conduct on official Rutherford County websites, now appears to be interested in monitoring all employee’s online behavior.
Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess responded saying, “this ability to search only applies to our Internet county site, our Internet only.”
Because of the way the policy is written, the county could choose to only monitor what is happening on its equipment and official sites, but the ability to do a broad keyword search and monitor conduct by all employees online is feasible.
Commissioners were also concerned with how the policy would apply to them as they often communicate with constituents through e-mail and Facebook.
Because the policy is concerned with shedding unfavorable light on Rutherford County, Commissioner Brad Turner (Dist. 10) pointed out how it could negatively affect the relationship between commissioners and constituents.
“My Facebook page allows my constituents to ask questions of me that I should answer because they elected me to represent them,” Turner said. “I don’t want to tell them I can’t talk about it because I’m upset about it and we’ve got a policy that doesn’t allow me to talk about it.”
Burgess addressed the committee saying, “It doesn’t matter if you’re an elected official or not, we still have a certain duty of professional responsibility that we need to hold, and I think this policy allows for that to occur and still have the flexibility of use.”
“You open up a whole new Pandora’s box when you start saying, well you can say this, but you can’t say this,” Turner said.
With so many questions about the language of the policy verses the intent of the policy, no vote was taken. The policy was sent back to committees for further review.